Australia 2016 Part 5:  The Great Barrier Reef

Thursday, July 28, 2016

We had a leisurely breakfast at the resort this morning since we had a civilized pickup time of 9:00 AM.  Our destination is the Great Barrier Reef.   We loaded up our masks and snorkels (after all, who wants to borrow someone else’s snorkel), gathered my waterproof camera and Greg’s GoPro, and waited by the bus stop.  Just before the bus was scheduled to arrive, I looked at Greg’s GoPro and asked, “Do you have the waterproof cover on it?”  A moment of panic came to Greg’s eyes, and he raced back to the room.  Of course, that’s when the bus pulled in.  Luckily the driver needed to get out of the bus for a moment, so we didn’t keep anyone waiting too long.  It was a short ride into Port Douglas.  We were traveling to the reef with Quicksilver.  They pride themselves as the gold standard Great Barrier Reef tour operator.  Their high-speed catamaran takes you to Agincourt Reef, where it ties up to a pontoon.  (Some of you may remember Agincourt Reef from the news years ago.  A dive boat operator miscounted the number of divers in its boat and left two Americans stranded in the water.  They were never seen again.  There was even a movie about it called “Open Water.”  Cheerful to think about, isn’t it?)  Anyway, you can hop right off the pontoon and snorkel, dive, or ride around in their semi-submersible vessel.  We were ready to hit the water.

Our bus dropped us at the port, where we checked in and got our tickets to ride.  Along the way, we were warned repeatedly by Quicksilver representatives that today was very windy and choppy.  Seasickness was “highly probable.”  (That’s true for me in the wave pool at Schlitterbahn.)  We were advised to take seasickness medicine which would be readily available on board the catamaran.

A little about the reef:  the Great Barrier Reef has over 2,600 individual reefs and 300 islands and is the largest complex of coral reefs in the world today.  It extends for over 1,200 miles along the northeastern coastline of Australia.  It’s larger than Great Britain and about half the size of Texas.  The entire reef has been run since 1975 as a marine park and is managed by an Australian governmental authority.  It made the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1981.  It boasts over 1,500 species of fish, 400 species of coral, 4,000 species of mollusks and tons of other creatures.  The reef system began forming approximately 6,000-7,000 years ago.  It is the largest living feature on earth and is the only one visible from space.  In other words, it’s a whopper.

When we got on board our catamaran, the ginger pills for seasickness were free, but the “good stuff” was being sold for a price of $3.50 Australian for two pills in a packet.  We paid for two packets, but I felt a little put off that we had to pay for medicine that they were shilling.  Virtually everyone was buying it, so Quicksilver was taking in a good bit of money before we even settled into our seats.

Here’s a photo of the sister catamaran, taken from the one we were on:

As I mentioned, I am no sailor.  I get seasick on any kind of boat on the ocean.  Greg, our Coast Guard veteran, helped us to choose a seat, facing forward and on the main deck, where rocking would be at a minimum.  I am guessing that the boat would hold about 450 people, and it was pretty crowded.  Here’s a shot from our seats:

If it moves and has a motor, Genene will go to sleep on it.  She had no trouble with seasickness, but perhaps the medicine made her sleepy.

When she woke up, we went out on deck.  It was windy and cloudy, and at times, it rained slightly.

The journey to the reef would take about 90 minutes.  We were all lucky.  The medicine worked for us, much to my amazement.  It was worth what we paid for it, in spite of my grumbling.  Tons of people were using the seasick bags, and the staff was busy carrying the full bags out of the main cabin.  I don’t know where they were going with them, and I don’t care.

Selling seasick pills was just the beginning of the Quicksilver QuickProfit plan.  They certainly have capitalism down to an art form, and we were all a captive audience aboard their vessel.  Shills came around to our table throughout the journey.  Would you like a Lycra suit?  It will help against jelly fish stings, even though it isn’t jelly fish season.  Rental price is $8.  Would you like to scuba dive?  Give us your credit card.  Would you like to rent an underwater camera for the day?  $50 and we will give you the SD card at the end of the day.  No thanks, no thanks, no thanks.

And then we did it:  we fell for the pitch made by the marine biologist.  They offered an hour-long, small group advanced tour of “areas of the reef where the other passengers can’t go.”  I’ve always thought a good guide can add so much to the experience, and the lycra suit was included.  What could go wrong?

The guides were all worried because Greg has a heart stent.  They kept telling him how strenuous the tour was.  They should not have worried about him.  They should have been interviewing me:  I’m the Arkansas landlubber.

The ship arrived and docked at the pontoon.  The biologist gave us a small paper map to tell us where to meet her on the pontoon, after we had gathered our fins, lycra suits, and optional wet suits for buoyancy.  We all took advantage of the wet suits.

Genene is suited up:

Snorkel?  Check.  Mask?  Check.

We are ready to launch.

Our small group of 10 (plus guide and lifeguard) went in the water and started paddling furiously.  I knew immediately that this was going to be a problem for me.  The seas were very rough.  Our guides had not insisted that we use the “buddy” system, but I had told Greg that we all had to keep track of each other.  That meant that I had two buddies, Greg and Genene.  Most of the time I couldn’t find either of them.  Everyone looked identical in their black lycra suits.  Our “biologist”, who was at least 15 years old, swam like a bat out of hell for about two minutes on the first leg.  I was frantically trying to keep up with her while keeping hubby and daughter in sight.  The biologist popped her head out of the water and babbled quickly at us over the roaring waves.  I couldn’t understand a word she said.  (I may not have been able to hear her over the beating of my frantic, fearful heart.)  After the third stop (about 10 minutes in), I felt completely desperate, bordering on panic.  I was not comfortable in the water.  I couldn’t see a freaking thing. I couldn’t hear a word the guide was saying.  All I did was worry about Genene, even though she seemed to be doing great.  I think I was projecting my own panic onto her.  At the next stop, I didn’t wait for the guide to start talking.  I said, “This is not for me!  I need help now!” I pulled the plug on the whole thing, and I wasn’t one bit ashamed.  I was saving my own life!

Greg and Genene wanted to continue and I let them!  I admonished Greg to “be her buddy,” and he promised me that he would keep her in his sight.  I grabbed the lifeguard noodle with no shame and let one of the staff members tow me in, leaving them to the rest of the tour on their own.  We really hadn’t gone very far, but in my panicked mind’s eye, we were out in the open water all alone.  My lifeguard made sure I was okay as she dropped me at the pontoon.  I assured her that I was fine and just need a few moments, and she set back out to catch up with the tour.  I sat on the pontoon and gathered myself.  After a couple of minutes of sitting, I got in the water and floated around, dead-mans-float style.

The Great Barrier Reef is indeed beautiful, but I think I was spoiled by the last year’s tour to the mostly gentle waters of the Galapagos.  Also, I think we caught the Great Barrier Reef on a not-so-great day, because it was not spectacular to my mind.

I floated around calmly and got some good pictures.  Oddly enough, my anxiety was much lower when I did not have to worry about Genene or Greg.  I knew that they were safe with one another.  The snorkel area off the pontoon was very crowded, and I spent as much time dodging fins as looking at the reef.  Perhaps on a calmer day, going with the small tour would have been a good idea and not a disaster.

After about 40 minutes, Greg and Genene returned, and I went out part of the way to meet them.  They told me that the rest of the tour went pretty much like the first ten minutes–furious paddling followed by incoherent babbling.  They didn’t learn much and were sorry that they had no time to self-explore. Also, I wasn’t the only quitter.  The group started with 10 but by the time the tour was over, about 5 remained.

We paddled through the big group of snorkelers and sat back on the edge of the pontoon.  Where did Genene go?  She was there just a second ago.  At the beginning of the tour, our guides had told us that we had to sign out as soon as the tour was complete.  I guess they pay a little more attention to their headcounts after losing those two pesky Americans back in the day.  Anyway, we were sitting on the edge of the pontoon looking for Genene, and the lifeguard (the same lady who towed me in) said, rather robot-like, “Greg and Lori need to sign back in.”  We acknowledged her request but replied, “We can’t seem to find our daughter.  Have you seen her?”  The lifeguard said that she had not and didn’t seem concerned about that.  Then she repeated, “Greg and Lori need to sign back in.”  That peeved me greatly (first of all because it seemed a little odd for her to address us by our names while looking right at us) and I snapped, “I’m not signing anything or leaving the water until I see Genene.”  We kept scanning the water, but of course, everyone in black lycra and wetsuits looks the same, and we were literally looking at hundreds of face-down bodies floating in the water.  After a few moments of elevated anxiety, we found Genene out of the water on the pontoon.  Ever the rule-follower, she had gone to the clipboard to sign herself back in. We were a little annoyed with her.  She wants to be self-sufficient, and we want to keep looking after her as if she is a little girl.  She is our little girl.  All’s well that ends well, and I was glad to be rid of the Stepford Wife robo-lifeguard too.

Back to my decision to quit the tour for a moment.  I actually think that my decision, though made in panic, turned out better in terms of reef-viewing.  I saw more of the reef than Greg and Genene did.  They did get to touch a sea cucumber and saw some giant clams.  Ho hum, says me.  Not worth drowning for!

We barely had time for a quick lunch, and we all returned to the snorkel area as a family for a few minutes.  We all wished we had more time.  We never even got to ride in the sub.

By 2:30, it was time to make our way back to the pontoon.  We had scheduled a special ride back to land.  No more catamaran full of puking people for us.  I felt a little like James Bond.  Can you see our ride?

During our short boat ride from the pontoon to the helicopter platform, our guide strapped on a life-preserver.  His advice was simple:  don’t get near the whirling tail of the copter.

We gave Genene the front seat:

Each of us wore a headset, and the microphone was voice-activated.  This was a little disconcerting because I like to gripe about everything sotto voce, and my every wheedle would be broadcast.  Plus you could hear yourself talk through the headphones, always disconcerting.  I soon learned to cope by whining less.  Genene and Greg probably appreciated that.

As soon as we were all in our seats with the doors closed, the pilot lifted us into the air without fanfare or delay.  What an awesome feeling it was to go straight up, up, up!

The reef was gorgeous from the air.

Can you see the stingray?  We also spotted many turtles.  We asked our pilot to look for whales, but he said they would be scarce this time of year.

The helicopter ride turned out to be my favorite part of the day, because you could really get an idea of the enormity of the reef from the air.  In fact, I would say the helicopter saved the day, in terms of leaving me with a positive impression of the reef.  I would have considered the day a bust if it had not been for our flight.  Perhaps I was a bird in a prior life.  I definitely was not a fish.

Can you see why they call this Snapper Island?

We saw the Daintree River from the air.

The waves rippled to the shore like lace.

Port Douglas sat below us, pretty as a postcard.

Our pilot set us down gently in a grassy field.  A car was waiting to take us back to Port Douglas.

One thing we hadn’t realized was that we would have time to kill.  We were taking the communal transport bus back to our hotel, and it wasn’t going to leave until the boat got back.  Obviously, we traveled faster in our little bubble (thank God; I can’t imagine sitting on that boat for 90 more minutes).

We found a bar at the port and settled in to wait for the slowpokes (or should I say slowpukes?) to return.

The sun came out, and we relaxed until we saw the catamaran coming in.  We got on the Thala Beach bus and headed for “home.”  I am happy to check Great Barrier Reef off my bucket list.  I do not need to do it again.

We asked for the earliest possible dinner reservations at the resort.  Greg drank his fancy James Boag beer while I enjoyed an Australian red wine.  We were celebrating:  we didn’t drown at the Great Barrier Reef!

We are looking forward to a quiet day tomorrow.  There is nothing on our itinerary, so we are turning off the alarms and sleeping in.  I hope I don’t dream of sharks or fast-talking marine biologists.

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